PMQs and phone-hacking debate as-it-happened
All the details of this week's PMQs and an explosive Commons debate on phone-hacking, with politics.co.uk blow-by-blow guide.
By Ian Dunt Follow @IanDunt
11:35 – Good morning, and welcome to what's likely to be a dramatic day in parliament. Our coverage will start just before noon for PMQs. That's likely to focus on phone-hacking (it's the only show in town) as Ed Miliband tries to pin some of the bad coverage onto David Cameron. That's not a particularly difficult thing to do, given that Cameron hired Andy Coulson to be his communications boss after he'd resigned from the News of the World over, well, phone-hacking. But just because something is easy does not necessarily mean Miliband will be able to do it. After that Cameron will make a statement on his Afghanistan trip, and then, barring any odd Commons shenanigans, it'll be three hours of uninterrupted phone-hacking debate among MPs. If any of them have reliable rumours to get out there, they will use this oppourtunity, while they're protected by parliamentary privalige. Also, watch out for any more animosity between Cameron and John Bercow, who had a handbags moment last week. This time it could be worse – by taking the rare step of allowing the emergency debate on phone-hacking he made a power play against the government, which was desperate to avoid it. We'll be live in roughly 15 minutes.
11:59 – Northern Ireland questions are just wrapping up. When I get a moment I'll write about the atmosphere among journalists here in the parliamentary lobby, but for now, let's see what happens in PMQs. Miliband's done as well as he's ever done, in my opinion, with his response over the last two days. Let's see if he can keep that up today. Expect lots of typos by the way. Don't say you weren't warned.
12:02 – We start with news of the serviceman killed in Afghanistan. Ronnie Campbell (Lab, trade unionist, Santa Claus) asks a terminally long question about banking bailouts. He urges the PM to "sack a few spivs". Cameron insisted he's being tough. Second question goes to David Burrowes (Con, despicable jawline). He asks about floods. I'll ignore it for now. Everything but phone hacking is a distraction at the moment.
12:05 – Miliband is up. The entire press team for No 10 are watching from the balcony. Miliband says everyone in the country is disgusted. "That anyone could hack into her phone, listen to her families frantic messages and delete them .. is immoral and a disgrace." Will the PM support the calls for a public inquiry? Cameron says there will be an inquiry – "Possibly inquiries". Cameron says what's taken place is "absolutely disgusting". This is major stuff. We know there will be an inquiry now. Cameron says the current police investigation is one of the biggest in our country and does not involve those police officers involved in the original investigation. He even accepts that there will need to be an inquiry into the failure of the first police investigation. That's further than I expected him to go. He wants to wait until after the current police investigation. Miliband says he's encouraged by Cameron's decision.
12:08 – Miliband says the inquiry can start now, and should have a judge appointed to it with a clear term of reference – practices in the industry, the nature of regulation and the relationship between police and the media. Cameroon says he wants to speak clearly and positively. It's a very respectful exchange, as things stands. He says there should be no inquiry into the police/media relationship while the police investigation is ongoing. However, the other parts might be OK. Miliband says the PM is implying it can start moving now and he welcomes it. Miliband looking good here, as if he's leading on this. He moves onto BSkyB. He says he's previously argued it should go the competition commission. He says the public won't accept it if the decision goes ahead next week while News International is subject to a major criminal investigation. Should it go the competition commission? Dangerous territory for the PM.
12:11 – Cameron says he's followed the correct legal process to the letter. Jeremy Hunt is in a quasi judicial role and must follow it. Competition and plurality is seperate to what we're talking about today. It's Ofcom that makes the decision on fit and proper persons. Miliband says the answer was "out of touch with millions of people". The respect dies. "I know this is difficult for him but I strongly urge him to think again," Miliband adds. Sombre quiet in the Commons. Cameron again insists the decision went through the proper processes. "One is an issue about morality and ethics, the other is an issue about plurality and competititon. Those were the words he used yesterday and in just 24 hours he's done a U-turn to look good in the Commons."
12:14 – Miliband says Cameron is getting caught up on technicalities. Commons noise fills the chamber. He urges the PM to think again. Miliband moves on to say this was not the result of one rogue reporter. "No-one is denying that Milly Dowler's phone was hacked. No-one is denying it happened "on Rebekah Brooks' watch. he wants the PM to say that she should consider her position. Cameron says everyone at News International has to ask themselves "some pretty searching questions". He insist the police must do their work first and then these issues come up. Noise grows in the Commons. "I don't know from that answer" what he thinks, Miliband says. "These events show a systematic set of abuses" that reveal power without responsibity. "He hasn't shown the leadership necessary on BSkyB, he hasn't shown the leadership necessary with News International. He made a catastrophic error of judgement by bringing Andy Coulson into the heart of his Downing Street machine." Bercow has to interrupt, the noise is so huge. Cameron says: "I take full responsibility for everyone I employ, for everything this government has done. I feel so appalled by what's happened. That's why it's important there's a full police investigation. That is why we also need to inquiry on how we improve the ethics and morals of the press in this country. That's what we've done, that's what this government is doing and we don't need to take lessons from him about it."
12:19 – Well, there's an awful lot to say about what just happened, the first of which was that that was an absolutely gripping exchange. Secondly, I don't know if you noticed, but Miliband just declared war with News International. It's been a long time since we heard a Labour leader speak that way about Murdoch's empire, if ever. Thirdly, Cameron has made significant concessions – concessions which could seriously haunt him in the future. If those inquiries find too strongly against Coulson it will severely impact on Cameron. Fourth: Cameron was visibly hesitant and increasingly volatile. He knows this is potentially explosive. It's like handling old unexploded munitions. There are so many emotions swirling around this, and the chance of upsetting powerful media interests. But Miliband has shown a commendable confidence in grasping it, regardless of the consequences. Finally: the scores. Miliband 4 Cameron: 2.
12:27 – I've skipped plenty of questions while trying to get a sense of what other lobby journalists made of that exchange and the consensus is that that was probably Miliband's best PMQs performance yet. Lots of respect for his decision to adopt a calm, reasoned approach rather than the populist emotional outburst (a la Ken Clarke rape comments). Also much to commend in the decision to build to the Coulson accusation, rather than embed it everywhere. On those MP questions, Margaret Beckett (Lab, you know her, unfortunately) asks about upskilling our labour force.
12:30 – Bob Blackman (Con, unremarkable) asks Cameron to condemn gang related violence. I'm not sure I see the point of that kind of question. Do those guys watch PMQs? If so, are they likely to change their behaviour because of the PM's considered opinion. And finally, I do dislike questions to which you already know the answer. Ben Bradshaw (Lab, spiffing) says the government hasn't gone through the correct process on BSkyB. Why should we believe News International on this as opposed to phone-hacking. Cameron says if he hadn't followed due process it would go to judicial review. "You'd look pretty for a day and silly for a week," he insists. Lots of murmuring. Bercow chastises MPs for their "collective mirth". Bercow, by the way, being really much nicer to the PM today. Everyone playing nicely. Well, you know, relatively. PMQs ends. The PM's statement begins.
12:33 – Cameron will be making an announcement on the troop pullout numbers. I'll stick with it until then, when we'll take a short break. Then it'll be solid phone-hacking, so I hope you have something strong to hand. Cameron is claiming several victories in Afghanistan, and announces the mentoring phase (I thought we were there a while ago). He deploys various dubious statements about the country's ability to enforce its own security, both externally and internally.
12:37 – We already know 426 are going by 2012. Cameron confirms the UK will reduce its troop numbers by a further 500 from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012. "The country needs to know there is an endpoint," Cameron adds. OK, short break now, while we do up a news story and iron out some of these typos that will invariable have found their way into this. Check back in a few for the start of the phone-hacking debate. Won't be long.
13:23 – I'm hearing that Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, will open in the phone-hacking debate, followed by Dominic Grieve, attorney general, for the government, and then probably Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and phone-hacking victim, who called for the debate. I usually tire of Cooper very quickly due to her persistent authoritarianism and her frantic need to attack from the right, no matter how far right the government has already gone. Her reaction to this will be of a different quality, however. The Afghan debate is ongoing. While you're waiting feel free to read our main news story on the issue, or our guide to the scandal. You'll notice that all those pesky typos have magically disappeared as well. Isn't that wonderful? Now I can make new ones.
13:44 – OK well I got that one wrong. Bryant leads. He says the News of the World lost any sense of "shared humanity". He quotes extensively from Glen Mulcaire's apology to the Guardian yesterday as an example of systemic failure in the press. He wants blame pinned on journalists and private investigators, but also to management. "God knows if it was a minister this was happening to she would be demanding their head on a plate." Yep, can't exactly argue with that.
13:47 – Chris Bryant spreads the blame evenly, even citing privacy infringements by the Mirror, something he says shames him as a Labour supporter. The Mail and Mail on Sunday are also mentioned. He also blames Labour for not doing enough. "The whole of the political system in this country didn't take action. Now is our time to do so." He is heard in absolute silence in a packed chamber. It's rare, very rare for the chamber to be so quiet. This is one of those moments. The only comparison is a tedious and overused one, but an accurate one nonetheless: the chamber in the days after expenses were published by the Telegraph.
13:52 – Bryant is stabbing forcefully at Rebekah Brooks, citing her (ludicrous) evasions when asked about paying police officers to the culture, media and sport committee. He then mentions that move by the News of the World, where they handed details of payments to police to, well, the police. "I know News of the World are hanging Coulson out to dry on this, but surely the buck stops at the top and that's the chief executive," he says. The important point is made that MPs should not make a prosecution more difficult by a potential contempt of court during the debate. Interesting tweet from Mirror political editor Kevin Maguire: "Cameron enjoying roast beef and large glass of claret in Members Dining Room as hacking debate starts in Commons." The government benches are considerably lighter than the Labour benches. On the subject, Grieve stands up to say that inquiries can't really take evidence while the police investigation is taking place. That doesn't mean it can't be set up now though, he says. Grieve, in case you've never heard him speak, has one of those tones that's so irritatingly authoritative that you just assume what he says is right. And it usually is.
14:01 – Bryant getting a bit too Braveheart for my liking, waxing lyrical about parliament's role holding power to account. More interesting now though: parliamentarians have become too complicit with the media, he says. "We live, we die by what they show. We have let the PCC delude us into thinking it is genuinely independent. We have let one man have far too great a sway over our national life. At least Berlusconi lives in Italy. Murdoch doesn't even pay tax here. America, the home of the aggressive entrepreneur doesn't allow it. We shouldn't."
14:05 – Bryant says he hopes the media rediscovers its true vocation. For that we need a full open inquiry. Grieve stands up and congratulates Bryant on raising these matters and securing the debate. He says the House shares his "anxiety, shock and concern". Grieve says that obviously given his job he has to be more cautious with his language. Bryant nods collegiately. The attorney general says phone-hacking is a serious crime. He's laying out the legal context. He says because of the gravity of the allegations there would have to inquiries, but they cannot jeopardise the criminal investigation. That means it must end and that prosecutions must be concluded as well. He accepts that some areas can be moved forward on earlier, but finality is still some way off. Hazel Blears (Lab, sometime rocker of boats) is up, if you can call it that, and says there should be oversight of the Met investigation and that of the internal News of the World investigation.
14:10 – Grieve says the News of the World has hired independent council for its investigation. Labour guffaws. Grieve says that the News of the World can do what it likes, he draws neither reassurance nor suspicion from it. Kevin Brennnan (Lab, sniper) asks if he thinks it's really media secretary Hunt's role to decide on competition without referring to the commission. Grieve says he was minded to do so, which doesn't manage to swipe it away. He's asked where assurances have come from on competition. Grieve admits it's from News International. Labour loses it a bit. He insists it was overseen by Ofcom. Grieve says it's a quasi-judicial issue and that Hunt is therefore quite circumscribed in what he can do. Jack Straw gets up. Labour smells blood. Straw says there is additional information and that that must now be taken into account. Grieve says Hunt will take it on board. Hunt, sitting next to him, nods. Grieve is asked how Hunt can accept the assurances if it's still at consultation. Grieve says he's "minded" to accept them, but listens anyway to what is being said right now. Tense stuff. Nicholas Soames (Con, reputation as large as his shadow) says there's evidence of serious criminality. There should be a pause pending further evidence. Grieve says the point is reasonable and again insists Hunt will note the comments. Grieve is really struggling here.
14:21 – Chris Bryant accepts Ofcom must decide on "fit and proper" persons but it needs a pause for that to happen. Grieves says he is happy to go away and check but he thinks it can intervene at any stage. My guess, by the way, is that it will be paused, because even if the government is intent on handing it to Murdoch it won't want to do it now, but later when things have died down a bit. The chairman of the media committee intervenes to point out that Ofcom can indeed intervene at any stage. Grieve reminds the House of the history of phone-hacking. Pointless. He should have read my summary earlier. One Labour MP shouts: "I know", so Grieve spanks him a bit with some long words which I don't fully understand. He starts the story with the royal incident in 2005.
14:26 – Behind Grieves, Ken Clarke is fully awake and seemingly enjoying every second of it. Grieve admits the former director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, has been appointed to help NOTW (I'm calling it that from now on to spare my fingers, thank you very much) with the disclosure process for the police. That'll really help people's suspicion of high level political conspiracy. Grieves ploughs on with his history story. He is asked why it took the government so long to take the issue seriously. Several of us in the press have been asking that question of our colleagues. Grieves points out, fairly, that this is an issue that extends well beyond the formation of the coalition. He says the House should be judgemental on itself, but not really a particular party. That's quite right and the same point Bryant made. Grieve refuses to give way and then accepts it. Helen Jones (Lab, seemingly on the verge of hospitalisation) tries to push him on the BSkyB process. Grieve, increasingly irritated, says it's a legal process and that Hunt will take heed of the "anxieties that have been expressed in the matter".
14:36 – Grieves wraps up, saying the House must have forbearance in brining the matter to a close. Basically, he's said nothing, but done so very well. Cooper gets up for Labour and also congratulates Bryant. "With every hour that passes we hear more disturbing allegations," she starts.
14:44 – I do wish I liked Cooper but she's just too much like a schoolteacher and far too far to the right for a Labour bod. She speaks about press self-regulation in a way that suggests she would rather scrap it. She's right, however, to stress that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is toothless and needs to be sorted out. Ed Miliband, so impressive a couple of hours ago, is doing something unspeakably odd with his eyes. At best, he looks like a petulant schoolchild. Guido Fawkes has just suggested that Brooks has pulled out of tonight's Police Bravery Awards event by the Sun newspaper. Seems entirely believable.
14:50 – Cooper getting seriously boring now. Miliband still weird, really weird. He has more facial expressions available to him than the average human, but none which offer any hope for his political future. Sky just reported (very meta) that News Corp shares fell 2.4% on opening at the New York stock exchange. Cooper says the government should announce the team on the inquiry now. She's got nothing to add to the joint Miliband/Bryant points. Cameron is drinking Claret with his roast dinner, according to Twitter. Cooper starts on the Cameron judgement attack – as predictable as a Hollywood rom-com. The PM needs to provide some immediate answers about what he knew about Coulson's action in relation to police payments. Cameron must remove himself from any part in this issue, because he is tainted by impartiality due to his strong association with one of the key players. Hard to argue with that. "We will not stand for the shameful and cruel practices that we have seen, we will stand as a parliament against these shocking practises. We will stand on the side of those, especially the victims, who should never have been dragged into this debate today." And with that, she's done. John Whittingdale, (Con, chairman of the culture, media and sport committee, quite used to being lied to), stands up next.
15:06 – This from the Guardian: "News Intl will claim Rebekah brooks was on holiday when NotW published a story obtained via accessing Milly Dowler's voicemail". Whittingdale is giving it to the police hard. He says all the current evidence was held by them and they did nothing. Now the press. "In the same way that Clive Goodman was not a rogue reporter, I suspect we will find out that the NOTW was not a rogue paper". And it's Tom Watson. He'll get very Biblical, just you watch.
15:09 – Watson says Brooks must go. "She was not only responsible for wrongdoing, but I believe she knew about it. On April 14th 2002, NOTW revealed it information from Milly Dowler's phone. "It was a central part of their story that they had evidence from a telephone. The story of Rebekah Brooks being far from events is simply not believable." He says he'll now inform the House of more evidence. She was there at a Scotland Yard meeting after evidence was presented that a newspaper was obstructing justice. Unlawful means were used to discredit a police officers and his wife so he'd be prevented from completing a murder investigation. What Watson is saying right now is explosive. "News International has entered the criminal underworld," he says. He claims the paper used unlawful tactics to help one of her investigators. Complete silence in the Commons.
15:14 – "In the world of Rebekah Brooks no-one can cry in private, no one can weep without surveillance. I believe Mr James Murdoch should be suspended from office while the police investigate" a cover up. Watson says he silenced people who had been hacked with money. This is nothing less than an attempt to pervert the course of justice, he continues. He and Brooks are not fit and proper persons to control any part of the media in this country, Watson says, and then sits down. Really remarkable scenes in the Commons today. Simon Hughes (LD, deputy leader, problematic mannerisms) stands up next.
15:22 – Hughes is actually pretty devastating. He claims there is "endemic corruption" in the police force. On that note, Jenny Jones, Green party member of the Metropolitan Police Authority has just put out a statement saying she will be asking for assurances that no-one in the current police investigation has ever accepted money from the press. ""I will be asking the commissioner to reassure the public that all the officers involved in Operation Weeting and Operation Elveden have clean hands and have not received payments or gifts for information from journalists and investigators in the past," she said. “There is a public suspicion that this has been a widespread practice in the past with the police providing tip offs and nuggets of information to journalists and photographers. I would be happy with a simple statement being made by officers of all ranks involved in both the current investigation and the initial investigation, that they have not received such payments at any point in their careers."
15:26 – Alan Johnson is up next. He also attacks Grieve for not demanding Brooks' resignation and for not pausing the BSKyB deal. Labour really has declared war on Murdoch when a real New Labour grandee joins the attack. He praises the Guardian for sticking with the story even when the public and parliament didn't seem all that interested. Tom Watson gets a bit of love too, if you can handle the associated imagery.
15:41 – Dominic Raab (Con, eligible) is up – one of the few Tory MPs who wants to speak. He criticises some parliamentarians for being "opportunistic" by attacking Murdoch. That's a very naive perspective. This entire story has always been an attack on Murdoch. That doesn't prevent it being pertinent anyway. It's a bit like military technology being used for civilian applications. He also reminds everyone not to prejudice a future trial. The points been made before. He's getting boring. Remarkably, Sky News are still devoting coverage to this debate. I'm not sure I've ever seen them stick with a parliamentary debate so long. Overcompensating? Perhaps. It's a slightly odd feeling in the parliamentary lobby. There's the obvious sense of resentment, not least because most journalists have never hacked a phone. I just walked by the Guardian office and there was no sense of celebration there, although that could have something to do with the fact that they're surrounded by other hacks, some of whom feel distinctly victimised. Alun Michael (Lab, exasperating) is up to tell MPs that the PCC has neither the ability nor, apparently, the will, to change things.
15:50 – There's a lot of mirth on Twitter at the 'Rebekah Brooks was on holiday' excuse. I particularly enjoyed: "The dog ate my editorial duties". Zac Goldsmith (Con, overrated to the point of hilarity, talked about in terms that make men jealous) is up and celebrating Bryant's efforts to secure a debate. The chamber is much emptier now by the way but there's still about 60 MPs. Damian Green is, I think, going to close for the government. In the meantime, Goldsmith is reminding the House of the awful allegations of recent days. Is this charisma, the way Goldsmith flaps his hands? If so I might become a hermit. There's been another winning Tweet on Brooks: "It was all Ross Kemp". Goldsmith says, contrary to his leader, that the BSkyB deal needs to be put on hold. He calls the motion "hugely important".
15:58 – Clive Efford (Lab, surprisingly human) admits journalism and politics is symbiotic. The debate is about how we treat the vulnerable, he insists. The time limit for backbenchers has just been cut from seven minutes to four minutes. I'm starting to get knackered. Adrian Sanders (LD, monotonous) isn't helping. I'll break from the debate for one second because Hugh Grant, who has somehow turned himself into a cheerleader for ethics, is on Sky News. He says the whole tabloid industry is "at it". He adds: "I have no quarrel with the broadsheets." He says he was in hospital the other night and it was in the paper the next day, because, he presumes, someone paid someone off. He encourages people to vote with their wallets and stop buying these papers. "Tabloids have lived above the law for so long because of their incredible power to destroy people. They will use that power. They're very brutal. I think we can largely rely on proper journalists to do [serious reporting]." And with that, he's off. Behind him, by the way, there's a small anti-murdoch protest. I'll go back to the Commons now.
16:17 – Anna Soubry (Con, grammatically disabled) says people buy tabloids because they have a weakness for the tittle-tattle of life and then, oddly enough, "the scum of life". Michael Meacher (Lab, thoroughly decent) says it's laughable to think that a company like News Corp would be able to become the largest media owner in the country. Elsewhere in parliament, the PM's spokesman has just said that "nothing has changed" on BSkyB but "if there were substantiated allegations that may be something Ofcom would consider".
16:41 – Green is summarising the status of the police investigation. Nothing new here. A few political journalists are tweeting in support of their News of the World competitors. The political editor of the Daily Express just wrote this: "May I just say NoW political team is hugely respected in Westminster and a great bunch. Happens to be true." And with that the debate comes to an end.
16:44 – So what have we learned? In the debate? Not very much. The real content came during Cameron's first answer in PMQs, where we found out about the inquiry(/inquiries) and Cameron's position on Brooks and BSKyB. Tom Watson's evidence will be important if it can be verified. Green's response to it – the fact that he singled it out for praise – shows that regardless of Downing Street's obvious hesitancy it is willing to now look at these accusations. The floodgates are opened. Watson was still being treated like a teenager last week. This week not so much. Also, the willingness of people like Alan Johnson to attack News International shows that it's not just Miliband that's at war with Murdoch. Labour has turned against the puppeteer. There were suggestions this was true yesterday, with Miliband's comments to camera, but this was when it was confirmed. That makes it a minor historic day in British politics. OK, that's it from me. I'll see you next week for PMQs.